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Notes on the Jews of Persia Under Mohammed Shah.

(Continued from vol. vii., p. 607)

Obtained From One of Themselves.

By the Rev. Abraham De Sola.

“Singula quaeque locum teneant sortita decentern.”—Hor. ars. Poet.


The “Shashia”—Feast of “Eliyahu Hanabi”—Educational System—Marriages.

When a female child is born, the parents, on the sixth day of its birth, make a feast for all their female relatives and acquaintances, called shashia, i. e. feast of the sixth day, also styled the women’s feast. Should the parents be poor, the entertainment is provided by a society called shashia koopsah, or “Sixth Night Society,” who take care that there shall be no difference discoverable between the poor man’s feast, and that of the rich man. The child is named on this night, the ceremony being performed thus:—before the company sit down the child is brought into the festive room, and a friend having inquired of the father the name he wishes her to bear, proceeds to give her this name, following a prescribed formula;—the feast then proceeds with great hilarity until the morning. But little more is seen of the young lady until the day of her marriage, her education being entirely acquired from her mother, who, in addition to her domestic duties, teaches her her prayers, and overlooks her religious education generally. The sciences of sewing, knitting, carpet-making, and the like, she generally acquires at the house of a friend. A practical knowledge of cooking is considered by all classes as indispensable. Engaged in these pursuits she remains under her mother’s tutorage, till she attains her ninth to her thirteenth year, when she is married. It is seldom, indeed, that a maiden remains single after her fifteenth year.

When a male child is born, the Shashia or feast for the women takes place on the sixth night, and on the seventh day, if the parents <<44>>are poor, the treasurer of the “Society of Elijah the Prophet” calls and gives them money sufficient to provide for the morrow, when the child is named, another feast equal to that made by the richest member of the community on a similar occasion. On the morning of the eighth day, after service in the Synagogue, the sexton proclaims there a “feast of Elijah” at the house of such an one, and invites the congregation to go thither. They all attend accordingly, even the Chief Rabbi; but he only stops to give the child his blessing, and insert the name and the date of his birth in the register he keeps. The child is named, and the feast proceeds—the company singing various religious hymns and songs until a late hour. The time permitted the child to remain at home is five or six years, during which period he receives an elementary education from his father, who then sends him to school. His progress here will be better seen, if we now devote a short time in examining the management and discipline of the Bathe Midrashioth, or Jewish schools of Hamadan.

The Yeshiba or college excepted, the Jews of Hamadan have no establishments which they appropriate solely for educational purposes. Their schools do not consist of buildings belonging to the community, or maintained by individual enterprise, but are kept at the houses of certain members of the congregation, who, with the greatest willingness, devote them to this use.

Four houses at least must be requisition at one time, these being necessary from the plan of education adopted. To give some idea of this plan, we will now give the names of the four schools, and briefly sketch the subjects of study and the manner of school government. We have first, the Mikra Midrashi or Scripture school, in which the young tyro acquires the rudiments of Hebrew, a knowledge of the occasional blessings said by Israelites, and an ability to read in the Hebrew Pentateuch from Leviticus to the end.

He commences with Leviticus because it treats of the sacrifices, and he must be early imbued with the sentiment of sacrificing everything to his duty to the Almighty. In this school he generally remains three years; it may be longer, according to his capacity. On attaining a certain proficiency in his elementary studies he is promoted to, secondly, the Targum Midrashi, or translation school, where he usually stays two or three years longer. The subjects of study here are the Pentateuch, translating it into Aramaic from Genesis to the end, with the Tangamim, or musical and rhetorical accents, the Targum of Onkelos, and the commentary of Rashi. These are his morning exercises. In the afternoon he learns to write Hebrew, and to repeat his prayers. He is then advanced to third, the Din Midrashi, or law <<45>>school, in which are taught the Prophets, Hagiographa, Shulchan aruch, or digest of Jewish law, the first three books of the Yad Hachasakah of Maimonides, and the Haphtaroth with the musical intonation. Here he remains for two years longer, when he enters, fourth, the Bachur Midrashi, or youth’s school. Here he makes his first acquaintance with the Talmud, commencing his studies therein at the first treatise. The Jerusalem Talmud is generally used, but the Babylonian is also studied. He also reads here in the En Yahacob, a book containing the various Agadoth, or moral and traditional narratives found in the Talmud. This is generally perused as far as treatise Sanhedrin. When he has acquired the necessary proficiency in these studies, he is worthy of sitting among the Talmidé Hahamim, or students of the Yeshiba.

The hours of study, in the junior schools, are, during the summer months, from nine till twelve in the morning, and in the afternoon, from three till six. In winter, the hours are from ten till twelve in the morning, and from one till three in the afternoon, when they repair to the Synagogue for prayers. The manner of dismissing the pupils is characteristic enough. Clocks or watches not being in common use, the progress of time is only learnt by the clash of cymbals and the sound of trumpets, played at certain intervals, by the soldiery in the streets. But as it may happen that the teacher, engaged in the business of the school, does not hear these, he makes a mark on the wall, the approach of the sun to which, apprises him of the progress of the hours, almost as accurately, as had he watch or clock there. As may be supposed, in proportion to the proximity of the sun to the mark, are the number of anxious glances cast thereat—glances, given even at the risk of receiving the summary punishment inflicted for inattention—the Damar or leathern strap. And when the sun has but barely reached the sign, no consideration can deter the whole school from bursting forth into the loud and general chorus of “Rabbi, do you not see that the sun is on the sign?” The Rabbi then rises from the floor, and the pupils standing around him in a circle, repeat after him, word for word, the Kadish, or glorification of God’s name, and also the Scriptural readings contained in Gen. xlviii. 16, Deut. xxiii. 26, and Proverbs i. 8. They then kiss their hands as a mark of respect to their master, and the business of the day is over.

The Rabbi or teacher, is as much respected by the parents, as he is feared by the children. His influence is not confined to the school, but extends also to the home. Parent and teacher do not look with indifference upon each other’s efforts, but they cordially unite, to make <<46>>the youth a religious and useful member of society, a feature in the educational system of the Persian Israelites surely worthy of general adoption. The Rabbi does not administer the Damar for inattention or remissness at school only, but he applies it to the pupils’ hands and feet, just as vigorously, if they have been guilty of disrespectful or turbulent behaviour at home.

The masters have various titles according to the rank they occupy in teaching—thus the teacher of the Mikra Midrashi would be called Calipha, or junior teacher, of the Targum Midrashi, Sainah, or Senior, of the Din Midrashi, Malleh, or Superior, and of the Bachur Midrashi, Rabbi, master or Principal. The wardens of the Synagogue generally visit the schools weekly, to ascertain that the masters do not neglect their duty. If, after being weighed, they are found wanting, they are forthwith dismissed, and others appointed in their place,—a rather summary mode of proceeding, perhaps, but one, doubtless, calculated to secure the progress of the pupils. The rate of school charges for each pupil is, in the Mikra or junior school, 4 Shachi, a Tura or box containing some 10 lbs. of flour, and a fowl every month—during the wine season, a large pitcher of new wine is added. In the Targum Midrashi 6 Shachi, 1½ tura of flour, 2 pitchers of wine, and 2 fowls—and so the other schools in proportion. This is the ordinary payment of both rich and poor, the charges for the latter being paid at the community’s proper expense. We now dismiss the subject of schools and teachers with the one additional remark that, the subjects of study excepted, there is, perhaps, but little difference between Jewish and Christian schools, certainly not in their government and discipline.

The Jewish student generally enters the Yeshiba, the highest scholastic establishment, in his thirteenth, rarely later than his fifteenth, year. If his father decide that his whole employment shall be the study of the law, he immediately applies himself to this; but if his parent does not so decide, he joins to his studies some business avocation. In the former case, the father provides for him during life, in either case they reside together in one house, sometimes to the fourth generation, that they may avoid the capitation tax.

If he should not have been betrothed in his infancy, which practice is not uncommon, his parents now proceed to select him a wife, and he is married in his fifteenth to his twentieth year. If h is single when passed this age, the Haham (chief Rabbi) will send for his father, and reprove him, desiring him to take to his son, a wife, forthwith—if a poor man, telling him to seek the daughter of a poor man, and that all the attendant expenses of matrimony shall be provided him. If the son persist in a determination of <<47>>celibacy, neither he nor his father receive the honours of the Synagogue, and the Shochetim are prohibited slaying for him. But this course is seldom or never resorted to, being seldom or never called for.

The manner of betrothing and espousals is this. From the great reserve which obtains in the intercommunication of the sexes, the preliminaries of marriage are exclusively performed by the parents. That young man would be considered presumptuous indeed who took upon himself to select his own bride, and take her in marriage, and that young woman would be considered as forward and shameless indeed, who was cognisant of, and encouraged, such a course. Hence, as we have before said, marriages are always brought about through the instrumentality of the parents. When a youth arrives at what is considered the legitimate age for matrimony, the parents hold a conference as to the selection of a suitable partner for him. A young lady having been named and approved, the father, in imitation of Abraham’s sending Eliezer to conclude a matrimonial alliance for Isaac, deputes two or three of his friends to broach the subject to her parents. The friends call accordingly and discharge their mission. They are listened to with great attention and if the father of the girl says “In another week I will give you an answer,” then they know that he is favourably inclined towards the alliance. But if he should say “My daughter is yet young and I do not desire that she should marry just now,” then they know the contrary to be the case, and report accordingly. Let us now suppose a case in which the father is favourable to the suit of the young man, or, rather, of the young man’s friends. So soon as the matter has been introduced to him, he calls a council of his relatives or friends, when the merits and demerits of the proposed bridegroom are freely canvassed.

The character of the young man passing the ordeal favourably, and it having been satisfactorily ascertained that he is “not without Torah,” i. e., that he sedulously and constantly studies and observes the law of God, they all declare their approbation, by uttering the hope that the contemplated union may be a happy one. When, therefore, the friends of the young man return on the following Sabbath, they receive from the father the sententious reply, “Ben Yisrael lebat Yisrael,” (a son of Israel with a daughter of Israel.) “I see no objection to give my daughter to so deserving a young man. Return to-morrow, it being Sabbath, and then we will speak as to her dower.” Next day the question of dower is settled. The father of the bridegroom must present the bride with such articles of dress and ornament as shall be named by her friends, and the bride’s father, on his part, gives such money, furniture, & , as shall be agreed between them. The contract is then written out and <<48>>signed by the parents and friends, the latter acting as witnesses.

Soon after this an entertainment is given at the house of the bride, to which the members and friends of both families are invited. The father of the bridegroom having kissed the hands of all the company, proceeds to inform them of the proposed alliance, to which they respond with fervent exclamations of “Besiman tob! Bemasal tob.” (Be it in a propitious moment—be it in a good hour.) He then produces some gold or silver ornament in a wine-glass and giving it to the father of the bride elect, proclaims, “Thy daughter is herewith betrothed to my son,” the whole company drinking of the wine, and being witnesses. The mother then suspends the ornament, the sign of the betrothals, around the neck of the bride, who continues to wear it till married.

The ancient custom of betrothing (Deut. xx. 7,) from infancy, still obtains among the Jews of Persia. Six months, at least, must elapse before the youthful couple are united. This generally takes place at the period of the Passover or Tabernacles’ festivals. A few days before the holydays, the nuptial festivities are commenced by the parents of the bride giving an entertainment to all the young maidens of the bride’s acquaintance—the parents of the bridegroom feasting the young men. Another great feast is given, at which all the married relatives and friends are present, and on this occasion the marriage ceremony, according to the rites observed by all the house of Israel, is performed, and the bride is then accompanied by her relatives to her new home.
The festivities, even as of old, extend over a period of seven days, and, gentle reader, to repeat the remark made by our informant when he had concluded his answers to our queries on this subject—“May your life on earth never be less happy than is the season of bridal festivities among the Israelites of Persia.”

(To be continued.)